The Luxuries of Technology

I am caught on the horns of an argumentum cornutum, pondering the question, "Can a technology product be a luxury product?" It is the sort of philosophical issue worthy of a 21st-century Aristotle or Socrates. After all, one could argue that almost any product, be it a car or a garden sprinkler, is a technology product by virtue of the inclusion of technology to enable it to carry out its function of transport or irrigation, respectively.

But being that I am not a rigorous—nor indeed any kind of—philosopher, I take a technical product to be something electronic, the exact workings of which I would have trouble explaining to my children. I would further add that these days a technology product is often something that is more or less obsolete, or is about to be superseded by a new generation of similar products, typically as soon as one takes possession of it. And it is the rapid onset of obsolescence that prevents my accepting that a technological product can also be a luxury product. It is not an insurmountable barrier but one that I consider important when examining, say, mobile telephones.

Vertu, for instance, has recently introduced a new range of cell phones. For me, a telephone is a functional object. As an esthetic snob I do not want it to look hideous, but appearance is not the first criterion; I want it to enjoy reasonable battery life, reliability, durability and benefit from the most recent advances in communications technology. Although I am not particularly prone to phone envy, I can understand that the newest, sleekest phone can be a fashion item.

But fashion is different from luxury, and therefore a Vertu phone does not appeal to me as a luxury item. That's despite Vertu's claims that its phones are put together with the carefulness of a fine Swiss watch; that they can withstand being driven over by a Hummer, and that they can be finished with leather or precious stones. To my mind, natural hide and gems are materials inappropriate to the exterior of a telephone.

As far as I remember, one of the most dearly held tenets of William Morris, a founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, was that designs must be suitable to the material and vice versa: this is a useful litmus test to apply to any product. I am bewildered why Lenovo should think to offer an IBM ThinkPad covered in leather—computer companies aren't known for their skills in working with leather, just as leather workers are not the people to whom I turn when I need a new computer. By all means carry your computer around in a leather case, but I cannot help thinking that leather cladding on a computer is slightly silly.

Putting a computer in such fancy dress strikes me as akin to insisting that the pilot of your jet aircraft dress like an 18th-century coachman. If you are going to tart up your technical gear at least do it with appropriate materials: why not use Kevlar, carbon fiber, or give it the PVD treatment? Or, as it is intended to be a portable product, why not focus on making it lighter with greater battery integrity?

It is when a technical product makes a conspicuous virtue of its technical prowess that I can begin to see it as a serious luxury item. "Audio luxury" is a term gaining currency, as superquality audio equipment moves from the scientific to the lifestyle arena. Piano maker Steinway, for instance, recently got together with Peter Lyngdorf, an acoustics expert, to create something that it grandly claims to be the world's finest sound system. Handmade in Denmark and lacquered at Steinway in Hamburg so that it matches the full-size concert piano that no household should be without, it bases its offer on its "acoustic clarity." That's more like it: apparently Lyngdorf works on the basis of form after function, meaning he gets the technical bits right and then decides how to package them.

On the subject of luxury audio, I was recently introduced to an interesting man, Bob Stuart, chairman of Meridian, which manufactures sound systems that compare themselves not to the competition but to real live sound. Meridian has been around for 30 years, during which time Stuart has been designing audio equipment and writing such treatises as "The Psychoacoustics of Multichannel Audio," recently presented at Essex University, where he is a visiting fellow. The words "visiting fellow" and "psychoacoustics," whatever that is, do more for me than any number of carats on a telephone; there is the sense that one is not just buying an expensive audio system, but getting three decades' worth of scientific research. If techno-luxury is to exist, then its future in a decadent and frivolous world lies in promising not surface pizzazz but the much more important commodities of precision and expertise.

The Luxuries of Technology | World